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  • Writer's pictureRichard Hammond

Green Traveller's Guide to Aix-Les-Bains, France

Aix-les-Bains is the unofficial sporting capital of France. There's a huge variety of outdoor activities on offer, from sailing and windsurfing on Lake Bourget (France's largest natural lake) to hiking in the surrounding mountain range in the heart of the Savoie Mont-Blanc region. After all the exertion, you can head back to town for a spot of 'bien-être' at the city's world famous spa where you can soak in any number of baths and therapeutic facilties, from hammans to saunas and geothermally-heated swimming pools. It's a great place to go for a sport break, especially as it's less than 7 hours by train from London via Paris and Lyon.

Here is my quick guide to Aix-les-Bains based on my recent trip to the city as part of our SprInterRail Sporting Adventure around Europe with RailEurope, plus a selection of the many tips that have been sent in by readers via our twitter account: @greentraveller and via the Green Traveller Facebook page.

The ancient spa town of Aix les Bains is in the heart of the Rhone Alps.
The ancient spa town of Aix les Bains is in the heart of the Rhone Alps. Photo Richard Hammond

Sailing on Lake Bourget at the sailing club of France's national sailing champ Manu Dyen, Aix Les Bains.
Sailing on Lake Bourget at the sailing club of France's national sailing champ Manu Dyen, Aix Les Bains.

What to do

Watersports on Lake Bourget This is France’s biggest natural lake, and there's an endless amount of fun to be had on the water. Sailing and windsurfing, kayaking, rowing, kite surfing and diving – there are courses for novices and pros alike. You can catch a boat over to Hautecombe Abbey, an imposing 12th century Cistercian abbey on the shores of the lake, often referred to as a spiritual ship being launched into the lake! If you prefer to keep your feet firmly on dry land, there’s plenty to keep you entertained by the water’s edge – take a stroll round the lake, bask in the sun on one of the beaches, or people watch from one of the many waterside restaurants.

Watch our 2-minute video of our day in Aix les Bains:

Messing about on the river Hire an electric boat for the day! Not only is this an environmentally-friendly way to travel by water, but it’s utterly quiet – you can pootle along with only the murmurs of wildlife and the lapping water to disturb you. A fun, relaxing and green way to absorb the local countryside.

Cyclists alongside Lake Bourget at Aix les Bains.
Photo OT Aix-les-Bains / Gilles Lansard

Exploring on two wheels In an area renowned for outdoor pursuits, it comes as little surprise that Aix-les-Bains is very much geared towards the cyclist – in fact, in September 2011, Aix-les-Bains became a ‘City vélotouristique’. From flat routes around the lake or along valley bottoms, to tricky ascents into the heart of the mountains, the region is criss-crossed with miles and miles of cycle lanes and routes to keep both the gentle peddler and avid off-roader happy for days. The Revard plateau has 140 km of marked routes, and the Chautagne, between the Rhône and the lake, has some 45 km of relatively easy tracks to explore. You can find bikes to rent outside the train station.

Head for the hills A trip to Aix-les-Bains really wouldn’t be complete without time spent roaming the peaks and valleys of the surrounding mountain ranges. The Bauges Massif, the Meije and the Ecrins are all within easy reach of the town, making this area a hiker’s paradise. For thrill-seekers on two wheels, take your bike on the Green Line bus up to Grand Revard (summer only) – you can get there under your own steam if you have the energy – for a picnic at the summit; at 1422 metres, you have a fabulous 360-degree view over the Mont-Blanc range, then it’s a 22 km free-wheel descent all the way back down to town. The buses are set up to carry paragliders too for those with wings instead of wheels.

Spa time Give those overworked limbs a bit of respite with a visit to a relaxation centre. Aix-les-Bains is France’s third spa town – people have been taking the waters here since the 5th century – so a dip in the thermal baths should definitely feature near the top of your ‘to do’ list whilst you’re in the area. The Thermes Chevalley Centre offers a variety of different treatments and packages, from saunas to hammans to balneology. For the more serious detox junkies, the centre offers week-long courses.

Queen Victoria statue - she was once a fan of the thermal waters at Aix les Bains
Queen Victoria was once a fan of the thermal waters at Aix les Bains. Photo: Greentraveller

Where to eat

One of the delicious fresh fish dishes at Maison des Pêcheur.
One of the delicious fresh fish dishes at Maison des Pêcheur. Photo Greentraveller.

La Maison des Pêcheurs Overlooking Lake Bourget, this is a must for anyone who loves fresh fish. We had a soup then steamed Lavaret - a fish that can only be found in the lake, followed by a fruit puff pastry washed down with delicious local white wine. We were told by our hosts that Michelin stars are just as much about service as they are about the quality of the food - and in our opinion here at La Maison des Pêcheurs both are terrific and it deserves to get a look in with the famous kitemark. This summer the restaurant is opening up 15 self-catering apartments overlooking the lake.

Chez Les Copains Here is a down to earth, no-frills restaurant, serving good local and seasonal fare, much of which comes from the markets in the region. Staff are attentive, the décor is charming, with a terrace out the front for sunny weather. The truffle risotto is sublime. This is fine-dining without the fuss.

Hôtel Palais des Fleurs Tasty organic cuisine, just a few steps from the hustle and bustle of the town centre. Using organic fruit and vegetables from local growers, the menu is bursting with delicious Savoyard specialities, like almond-crusted filet of Féra with herb-scented oil. Robust dishes, like tariflette, will keep hikers and bikers happy.

Where to stay

La Jument Verte In the shade of a large spruce at the bottom of the garden, you’ll find a charming, red and orange-painted wooden caravan, with flowerboxes spilling red geraniums in summer, and a cosy woodburner to warm your cockles in winter. Inside, it’s the perfect alpine getaway with pine-clad walls and ceilings and red curtains framing little windows. If glamping isn’t really your thing, there are 4 rooms in the main house, too, decked out in a similar décor. This homely little B&B, with its lovely natural outdoor swimming pool, is hidden away in the Bauges Regional National Park but is within striking distance of Aix-les-Bains – a great choice if you want to stay out of town but still want to be within easy reach of everything.

The natural swimming pool at La Jumente Vertes.
The natural swimming pool at La Jumente Vertes.

Radisson Blu This is where we stayed. A four-star hotel with big balcony vistas meaning you can continue to soak up the alpine views even after you’ve finished up the mountains. This is a convenient, good value option in the centre of the town, with spa facilities galore (sauna, swimming pool, treatment rooms), and incredibly friendly, helpful staff. A range of different bedrooms options - from standard to junior suite – means there is something to suit everyone’s budget. It’s big (102 rooms in total) which makes their Key Green accolade even more admirable.

Les Suites du Lac overlooks Lake Bourget
Les Suites du Lac overlooks Lake Bourget

Les Suites du Lac (right) If you’re after a bit of pampering on holiday, what better place than this stylish villa which has been built on eco-friendly principles, with solar panels to heat the water, low-energy LED light bulbs and recycling of swimming pool water and rainwater. Here, staff treat you like long-lost friends, the food is worthy of a Michelin star, and the supremely comfortable beds will make getting up the most challenging part of your day. The view of the lake from the stunning pool is quite something.

Getting around by public transport

The centre of the town is small enough to get around on foot, but there's a comprehensive bus network if you prefer to use public transport. The surrounding region is also very well serviced by bus. As soon as you've checked into your hotel you will be issued with a Guest Card, giving you unrestricted free access on the entire Aix-les-Bains public transport network, as well as discounts on various sights and activities, like museums, water sports, tours and guides, and shows and cinema viewings.

How to get to Aix-les-Bains by train From London St Pancras International Train Station, take the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord then transfer to Gare de Lyon for a connecting service direct to Aix-les-Bains, which will take approximately 3.5 hours. For more information about how to travel by train from London to Aix-les-Bains see our rail journey planner: Train from London to Chambery (Aix is one stop further - about 15 mins).

-- This green guide to Aix Les Bains was researched and compiled by Florence Fortnam, Richard Hammond and Andy Hix. Thanks to Isabelle Faure Rhone-Alpes Tourisme and Laurie Souvignet, Aix-les-Bains Tourisme for hosting greentraveller.

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